The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
Ask anyone about the films that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starred in together and chances are two will come to mind because they are two that anyone remembers. They both shared a genre (romantic comedy) and they both shared the same writer and director (and it’s here that we say hello once again to the great Nora Ephron). However, Sleepless in Seattle was not the first time Hanks and Ryan starred in the same film. That honour belonged to Moonstruck writer John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano
That film was something of an oddity, met with respectable box office and reviews, but it’s strangely a film that’s fallen through the cracks when it comes to the collaborations between Hanks and Ryan. The same cannot be said of Sleepless in Seattle which has become something of an increasingly perennial favourite amongst romantic comedy fans and was even being referred to as something of a modern classic as soon as 1996’s The Cable Guy, admittedly a film that is as far away from a film like this as possible.
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Like Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally, there is something of a lovely bittersweet hook with Sleepless in Seattle’s screenplay. Based upon a story by Jeff Arch, it’s a film where the poster and the advertising sells it on a film featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars but who end up sharing little screen time throughout, not meeting up fully until the very end of the film. Awash in references to An Affair to Remember, it’s a Nora Ephron romantic comedy that positively bleeds with affection for romantic Hollywood films, and uses its myriad references to one of the all-time greats which starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as a way to foreshadow its own fairy tale ending atop the Empire State Building.
This being a 90s film, telephone calls, rewatching old movies on television, and radio talk shows all factor as elements that try to bring our two leads together, although whether or not the film is displaying emotionally healthy characters might be the subject of some debate. One might end up viewing the film and Ryan’s character as somewhat toxic and unhealthy given that she falls in love easily with Hanks character just by listening to him on the radio talking about being a widower and ends up dumping the very lovely Bill Pullman to get a happy ending with Hanks and effectively becomes a cross-country stalker in order to find out who he is.
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Of course, if one looked at it with such a microscopic lens then the film falls apart and as this is very much part and parcel of the romantic comedy genre; we just have to accept the fairy tale approach to the story like we do with so many other romantic comedies. Think about it too much and it falls apart and the same can be said of so many films that the genre has given us. Ephron is a savvy writer and director and knows how to get the audience on board with a narrative such as this. The casting of Hanks and Ryan seals the deal and while on paper we probably should have a problem with a lot of what is going on here, in the end we don’t because – and I cannot emphasise this enough – it’s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
If it wasn’t Julia Roberts, most likely it was Meg Ryan starring in a romantic comedy and the two of them became queens of the genre so to speak throughout the decade and how could they not? They were so charming and lovable and easy to fall in love with. Ryan cemented her status as one of the most popular movie stars of the decade with her performance here and would so again with You’ve Got Mail as the decade went on, even managing to be impressive in films such as City of Angels, which subverted expectations by being more maudlin and dramatic,with a romantic story that could so easily have been a comedy but which went for a more dramatic emotional route complete with a tragic ending and devasting use of Alanis Morrisette and The Goo-Goo Dolls on the soundtrack.
As for Hanks, 1993 would prove to be a watershed year for the actor. Having impressed audiences and critics with his comedic chops in Splash, Big, The Money Pit and The ‘Burbs throughout the 80s, the actor was spending the 90s subverting expectations by opting for more dramatic performances and films. The 90s didn’t start well in that regard given that he starred in Brian De Palma’s notorious film version of The Bonfire of the Vanities (still worth watching for that one-take opening alone if not much else) but 1993 not only gave Hanks one of his biggest commercial successes with Sleepless in Seattle and showed once again that he was a very fine comedic actor and romantic lead, but he would end the year starring in the first of his double whammy of Oscar-winning roles in the groundbreaking Philadelphia, playing a gay lawyer suing his employers for firing him when he is diagnosed with AIDS.
It was perhaps as far from a film like Sleepless in Seattle as you could get, the tears it would elicit in audiences being of a sadder variety, but he would end up cementing his reputation as the finest of Hollywood actors, playing roles that got to the heart of exploring Americana itself, whether it be Forrest Gump‘s role in modern American history, Apollo 13 or once again being a romantic comedy lead in his reunion with Ryan and Ephron for You’ve Got Mail, playing a character flying the flag for corporate America, quoting The Godfather and catfishing Ryan’s character.
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That film would really go to town with Hanks and Ryan’s chemistry in a story that simultaneously kept them apart and yet managed to get them on-screen for large parts of the duration, but what makes Sleepless in Seattle such a lovely miracle is how the chemistry feels real and tangible and yet they never share the screen until the final act of the film, and for the most part the final scene.
Yes, Ryan’s character is one step away from being a stalker, and maybe in the hands of another actor the character may not have proven as lovable as she does here, but it’s Ryan and she’s amazing and if watching When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle prove anything, it’s just how much of a presence she had that is sadly missed nowadays on the big screen.